Sexual Alchemy

Sexual Alchemy

by Robert Anton Wilson

from GNOSIS Issue #8: Alchemy
Summer 1988
reprinted in Email to the Universe

The Chariot of Antimony by Basil Val­entine (1642) contains the following typical bit of Alchemical exposition:

Let the Lion and Eagle duly prepare themselves as Prince and Princess of Alchemy – as they may be inspired. Let the Union of the Red Lion and the White Eagle be neither in cold nor in heat … Now then conies the time when the elixir is placed in the alembic retort to be subjected to the gentle warmth…. If the Great Work be transubstantiation then the Red Lion may feed upon the flesh and blood of the God, and also let the Red Lion duly feed the White Eagle – yea, may the Mother Eagle give sustain-molt and guard the inner life.’

In general, the preceding passage is representative of the Iimpid clarity of exposition and crystalline lucid­ity of style to be found in alchemical literature. We can already see why so many Rationalist historians have concluded that the alchemists simply went off their skulls from inhaling too many narcotic and/or toxic vapors and wrote hallucinogenic gibberish.

Occultists of various schools, of course, have other ideas. They all agree that alchemical literature was written in code – because “humanity is not ready to receive certain knowledge,” say the esoteric; because any alchemist who wrote clearly would bring down the wrath of the Inquisition on his head, say the more pragmatic. Unfortunately, there are a few dozen theories about what the code means. What follows is the theory that I have found most satisfactory over the years, although I am not smart enough to be absolutely sure it is the one and only correct theory.2

According to Louis T. Culling, Grandmaster of an occult lodge called the G.B.G. (short for Great Brotherhood of God), in his Manual of Sex Magick, the main terms in the code, and their translations, are as follows:

RED LION – the male Alchemist, or his penis.

WHITE EAGLE – the Alchemist’s mate, or her vagina.

RETORT – the vagina and/or womb.

TRANSMUTATION – (or transubstantiation) an altered state of consciousness.

ELIXIR – the semen.3

Applying this key to Valentine’s gnomic paragraph, we find that he is instructing the novice alchemist to find a suitable mate, and to take a “royal” or lofty atti­tude – i.e. he is a Prince, she a Princess, ergo they are no longer ordinary people. (cf. Tim Learys 1960s’ slo­gan, “Every man a Priest, every woman a Priestess, every home a shrine.”) The union of the alchemical mates should be neither in cold nor in heat” —- they must be passionate, not indifferent to each other or merely cas­ual, but they must not be too damned passionate. That is, they should not gallop toward Climax in the man­ner all too typical of our culture. The sexual commun­ion, in short, should be tantric, leading to the “tran­substantiation” – a higher state of consciousness.

The late Dr. Francis Israel Regardie, an egregious chap who had two separate selves and careers — as Dr. Francis Regardie he was a neo-Reichian psychothera­pist, while as Israel Regardie he wrote a series of books which have influenced contemporary American oc­cultism more than the work of any other single author — also taught this interpretation of alchemy, but, un­like Culling, only in the traditional codes. For instance, inThe Tree of Life Regardie offers the following advice on how the Cabalistic Magician may add alchemy to his working armory:

“Through the stimulus of warmth and spiritual Eire to the Athanor, there should be a transfer, an ascent of the Serpent from that instrument to the Cucurbite, used as a retort. The alchemical marriage or the mingling of the two streams of force in the retort causes at once the chemical corruption of the serpent in the menstruum of the Gluten, this being the Solve part of the al chemical formula of Solve et coagula…. the opera­tion should not take less than an hour.4

Dr. Regardie offers the further helpful hint that, complex as it sounds, the operation is “no harder than riding a bicycle.” In correspondence, Dr. Regardie cheerfully acknowledged that I had decoded this cor­rectly. Culling differs from Regardie chiefly in claiming that the ascent of the Serpent requires at least two hours.

If some readers still feel a bit in the dark about what is involved in the prolonged tantric act, consider the following broad hints from Thomas Vaughn, another 17th Century alchemist roughly contemporary with Basil Valentine:

The true furnace is a little simple shell… But l had almost forgot to tell thee that which is all in all, and is the greatest difficulty in all the art – namely the fire… The proportion and regimen of it is very scrupulous, but the best rule to know it by is that of the Synod: “Let not the bird fly before the fowler.” Make it sit while you give fire and then you are sure of your prey. For a close I must tell thee that the philosophers call this fire their bath, but it is a bath of Nature, not an artificial one; for it is not of any kind of water… In a word, without this bath, nothing in the world is generated.5

As Kenneth Rexroth noted in his introduction to The Works of Thomas Vaughn, Vaughn seems to have been less concerned with hiding the secret, like earlier alchemists, than with making it clear by progressively broader and broader hints. There is only one bath from which all creatures are generated and ‘that is the bath of vaginal fluids, which is “not of any kind of water.” The furnace that is also a shell is a nice poetic image of female anatomy, worthy of John Donne -‑ whose poems sometimes suggest that he was in on the secret. Note especially Donne’s “Love’s Alchemy,” with its “pregnant pot” and “The Ecstasy,” with its clear tantric emphasis.

The “bird” (English slang for woman, but also a cross reference to the traditional Eagle symbolism) must sit while the alchemist gives fire. This is, of course, the traditional tantric position, which slows down the sexual communion and creates maximum intimacy and tenderness. Similarly, the lovers in Donne’s “The Ecstasy” sit and make “pictures” in each other’s eyes, leading most commentators to think no sexual connection was involved, but the yabyum (sitting) position of Tantra also demands communion by eye contact.

John Donne and other Elizabethans who show signs of knowing this tradition – Sir Philip Sydney and Sir Walter Raleigh, especially, but try re-reading Shakespeare’s sonnets with this model in mind – probably came under the influence of Giordano Bruno of Nola, who was lecturing at Oxford while Donne was there. It was during those Oxford years that Bruno published his Eroica Furioso, which alternates love poems with prose passages on the union of the soul with God. It is usually assumed that the poems are allegories about the soul’s pilgrimage, but they may just as well be keys to the yoga that produces the ultimate union and communion. (Incidentally, the historian Frances Yates believes that Bruno was the model for at least two of Shakespeare’s characters – Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Prospero in The Tempest.)6

Bruno, of course, ultimately returned to Italy, where the Inquisition locked him in a dungeon for 8 years and then burned him at the stake. Most historians note only that the Nolan (as he liked to call himself) was condemned for teaching the Copernican theory of astronomy, but actually he was charged with 18 offenses, including practising Magick and organizing secret occult societies dedicated to overthrowing the Vatican. Francis Yates suspects that the latter might be true and finds a Bruno-esque influence in the first Rosicrucian manifestoes.7 Certainly, The Alchemical Marriage of Christian Rosycross shows more than a tinge of Bruno’s Tantrism, and “dark sayings” like “It is only on the Cross that the Rose may bloom” strongly suggest both Bruno’s sex-magick and his love of paradox.8 (Two of the Nolan’s favorite koans were “In filth, sublimity; in sublimity, filth” and “In joy, tears; in tears, joy.”)

The question of how this tantric tradition got into Europe has no clear, unambiguous answer. Ezra Pound, in addition to his other achievements and infamies, was one of the leading scholars in the area of early French poetry, and in the revised 1916 edition of The Spirit of Romance included a chapter presenting evidence that a tantric cult existed in Provence at the time of the Troubadours and is referred to guardedly in much of their poetry. In addition to the data presented by Pound, I have noted that the characteristic verse-form of the Troubadours, seven stanzas, may refer to the seven “chakras” involved in tantric yoga. Certainly, there is nothing earlier in European literature (but much in Tantra) to foreshadow Pierre Vidal’s shocking, “I think I see God when I look upon my lady nude.” That was hair-raising blasphemy when written; but even more in the inner tradition of Tantra is Sordello’s lovely:

And if flee you not, Lady who has captured my soul, No sight is worth the beauty of my thought

Pound guessed (and admitting he was guessing) that this “yoga of male and female energies” had surfaced in medieval France after a thousand years of underground existence as Gnostic heresy. Louis de Rougemont, however, in Love in the Western World, presents an impressive body of evidence that the Troubadour yoga had been brought back from the Middle East by crusaders who learned it from Arab mystics, probably the more oddball Sufis.9

Louis Culling, op. cit., claims that the tantric tradition in the West is of definite Sufi origin and is also coded into the Rubiyat of Omar Khayaam. This allegation is based, alas, on “inner teachings” of various occult orders and not on sources recognized by historians. Surely, there seems to be a tantric element in the 14th Century Sufi Mahmoud Shabistari who wrote, “In every atom a thousand rational beings are contained.”

The Ordo Templi Orientis (of which Aleister Crowley was Outer Head for a quarter of a century) teaches the elements of Tantra in nine slow and care-fully scheduled “degrees” of initiation; the first degree unambiguously attributes this tradition to Sufism in general and, in particular, to Mansur el Hallaj – a Sufi martyr who was stoned to death for proclaiming the eminently tantric (and vedantic) doctrine, “I am the Truth and there is nothing within my turban but God.” (Some O.T.O. initiates think the true story of Mansur is the origin of the myth of Hiram in orthodox Masonry.) In my Sex and Drugs: A Journey Beyond Limits (Falcon Press, 1988), I give some credence to all these theories but suggest that a major role was also played by Hassan i Sabbah, founder of the Ishmaelian sect of Islam, who used both drugs and tantric sex to produce psychedelic experiences, which allegedly caused many to believe they had literally been privileged to experience Paradise while still alive.

This is the point at which most commentators on this Art tend to stumble or to wave their arms excitedly and start howling in rage. Some think all you have to do is adopt the “right attitude” during sex and – hey, presto – you are an alchemist or a magician or at least a Hermeticist of some sort. Others proclaim that all such yoga is “black” and “left-hand” and undoubtedly diabolical. While I cannot hope to dissolve the preju­dices of the latter group in a short article, I can at least jar the naivete of the former group somewhat.

Tantric yoga requires at least as much discipline as hatha yoga and as much capacity for loving and giving of oneself as bhakti yoga. To be effective at all, that is, the Tantra of sex must have the delicacy of a first-rate ballet troupe and the tenderness of true communion – in the religious sense of that term. Aleister Crowley, our century’s leading proponent of this yoga (and the teacher of Louis Culling, by the way) said this yoga requires “the nine and ninety rules of Art.” Elsewhere Crowley expressed this in the mantra, which has many additional meanings outside Tantra, “Love is the law, love under will.” One only knows if the art has been mastered if one comes to a state of consciousness in which one can immediately grasp, without doubt or hesitation, the meaning of another of Crowley’s hermetic aphorisms, “Every man and every woman is a Star.”

The power of Tantra may be indicated by the fact that Ezra Pound, who never studied this art under a Master, learned enough from his years scrutinizing Troubadour texts that, by 1933, in his essay on Guido Cavalcanti, he speaks of “magnetisms that border on the visible” and consciousness “extending several feet beyond the body.” These are characteristic signs of passing from ordinary sex to meta-sex, from the crude act Shakespeare called a “momentary trick” (and D.H. Lawrence called “the sneeze in the loins”) to tantric transcendence. What happens beyond those magnet isms and that expansion of consciousness is not worth discussing; those who know, know – and those who know not will simply not believe.

One might venture, however, that the mingling of yang and yin magnetisms tends to produce a synergetic third which burns up or consumes the original elements. Kenneth Grant, an oddball Crowleyan obsessed with menstrual magick (“the Mystery of the Red Gold”), speaks of this as the “bisexualization of both partners.”10 More precisely, one can say that, in Chinese terms, active yang becomes passive yang, passive yin becomes active yin, and both tend to merge into the Tao, to re-emerge in new and unexpected forms. Crowley’s notorious 2 = 0 equation, which he alleged explained the universe and would eventually explain quantum mechanics, at least serves as a useful glyph for this stage of the alchemical mutation. And, although Crowley loved to play the bogie-man and terrorize the naive and nervous, one should take with some serious­ness his warning when he says in Magick:

The Cup is said to be full of the Blood of the Saints; that is, every saint or magician must give the last drop of his life’s blood to that cup in the true Bridalchamber of the Rosy Cross… It is a woman whose cup must be Filled… the Cross is both Death and Generation, and it is on the Cross that the Rose blooms.11

One has to be knowledgeable in both Freudian and Jungian analysis to understand this even dimly, until one has had the experience. But then everybody who did LSD in the ’60s knows a little about Death and Rebirth; we are not a totally unprepared generation for these Mysteries.

This begins to sound too metaphysical. The processes involved can be defined very materialistically, in terms of exercizing to move the center of Consciousness from usual domination by the left brain hemisphere and the sympathetic (active) nervous system to balance between both hemispheres and a growing ability to relax into the parasympathetic (passive, receptive) nervous system. The old mystic terminology lingers on chiefly because it is poetically precise and psychologically highly suggestive.

It is, however, worth quoting Dr. J. W. Brodie-Innes, an initiate of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in England in the 1890s, who said of the relevance of traditional occult concepts:

‘Whether the Gods, the Qlipothic forces or the Secret Chiefs really exist is comparatively unimportant; the point is that the universe behaves as though they do. In a sense the whole philosophy of the practise of Magick is identical with the Pragmatist position of Pierce the American philosopher.12

In other words, we never know “the universe” per se; we know the universe as filtered through our consciousness, and when consciousness alters, the known universe alters. Crowley defined Magick as “the art of causing change by act of will,” and Dion Fortune defined it as “the art of causing change in consciousness by act of will,” and neither was over-simplifying or being cute: The traditional Aristotelian “Iron Curtain” between Mind and Universe has no meaning in magick, for the same reason it no longer has any meaning in quantum physics. As John Lilly wrote:

…if one plugs the proper beliefs into the metaprogrammatic levels of the (brain)… the computer will then construct (from the myriads of ele­ments in memory) those possible experiences that fit this particular set of rules. Those programs will be run off and those displays made which are ap­propriate to the basic assumptions and their stored programming.13

The Puritan looking at the Playmate of the Month sees something disgusting, awful, diabolical, and sinful; Pierre Vidal would see another manifestation of the glory of God. It all depends on the programs in the bio-computer. But all programs have a tendency to be-come self-fulfilling prophecies: a classic case is the sad, melancholy man who sits often in the dark, shunning sunlight, or walks around wearing dark glasses all the time, and gradually becomes even gloomier until he arrives at clinical depression. He has created the set and the setting for depression.

Conversely, those who achieve Divine Union with a beloved sexual partner tend to create their own self-fulfilling prophecies, and the most common effect is that all things become as beautiful as Vidal’s nude lady was when he saw Her as God. This transmutation of experience is technically called “the multiplication of the first matter” and many alchemists said of it, wittily, that this “gold, unlike ordinary gold, could not be spent or used up, because the more of it you pass on to others, the more of it you find you still have.

All religions preach charity and forgiveness; but those virtues are hard to practice when you are surrounded by sons of bitches. When the alchemical gold” is found, when consciousness mutates, you are surrounded by gods and goddesses, and the more of the “gold” you give away, the more comes back to you from an increasingly divine Mother Eagle. Quite simply, it is a short and almost inevitable step from Tantra to pantheism. It is no accident that William Blake, who, like Shabistari, saw “infinity in a grain of sand,” also penned the most searing indictment ever written of the puritan and ascetic hatred of Eros:

Children of a future age

Reading this indignant page

Know that in a former time

Love, sweet love, was thought a crime.14

Robert Anton Wilson is the author of numerous books including the Historical Illuminatus Chronicles, The New Inquisition, and Cosmic Trigger (Falcon Press, Santa Monica).



1.       See The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony, reproduced in The Alchemical Tradition in the Late Twentieth Century, ed. Richard Grossinger, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2nd edition 1983, pp. 34-47.

2.       However, I am quite sure that many readers of GNOSIS are that smart, and you can look forward to seeing their corrections of my ignorant guesses in the letters column of the next issue.

3.       A Manual of Sex Magick, Louis T. Culling, Llwellyn Publications, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1971, p. 57.

4.       The Tree of Life: A Study in Magic, Israel Regardie, Samuel Weiser, New York, 1975 edition, p. 251.

5.       “Coelum Terrae, ” in The Works of Thomas Vaughn, ed, A. E. Waite, University Books, New Hyde Park, NY, 1968, pp. 219-221.

6.       Giordano Bruno the Hermetic Tradition, Frances A. Yates, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1977, p. 357.

7.       The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, Frances A. Yates, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Boston, 1974 ed., p. 216.

8.       Reprinted in Commentary on the Chymical Wedding, Gareth Knight and Adam McLean, Magnum Opus Hermetic Sourceworks #18, Edinburgh, 1984.

9.       Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont, Harper & Row, New York, 1974.

10.   The Magical Revival, Kenneth Grant, Samuel Weiser, New York, 1974, p. 142.

11.   Magick in Theory and Practice, Aleister Crowley, Dover Publications, New York, 1976, pp. 41-42.

12.   For more writings of Brodie-Innes, see: The Sorcerer and His Apprentice: Unknown Hermetic Writings of S. L. MacGregor Mathers and J. W. Brodie-Innes, ed. R. A. Gilbert, Aquarian Press, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, 1983.

13.   Programming and Meta programming in the Human Biocomputer, John C. Lilly, Bantam Books, New York, 1974, p. 50.

14.   From “A Little Girl Lost,” Songs of Experience, William Blake, Dover Publications, New York, 1984, p. 40.

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